Author: Mail & Guardian

FiSahara – The world’s most remote film festival

As the great and the good of the world’s film industry prepared to descend on Cannes last week, a very different film festival was coming to a climax deep in the Sahara desert. Far from the red-carpeted Mediterranean opulence of the Croisette, the Sahara International Film Festival – known as FiSahara – took place in a sun-baked refugee camp deep in the Algerian desert. What it may have lacked in glittering VIP premieres and champagne-fuelled yacht parties, FiSahara made up for in spades with dune parties, camel races and multiplex-sized screenings beneath the stars.

Now in its 11th year, the FiSahara film festival attracted over 300 international actors, screenwriters and cinephiles, alongside thousands of Saharawi refugees exiled from their native Western Sahara for nearly four decades. Festival guests flew by chartered plane to the remote desert outpost of Tindouf where they boarded a convoy of buses and 4x4s and drove the dusty 100m to Dakhla refugee camp, in an area known locally as the Devil’s Garden.

The Sahara International Film Festival. (Carlos Cazurro)
The Sahara International Film Festival. (Carlos Cazurro)

There they were met by refugee families, with whom they lived for five days, sleeping in their stucco-and-tented homes and sharing their simple couscous meals and copious glasses of sweet tea. With midday temperatures topping 100 degrees, most activities were scheduled for mornings and late afternoons with screenings taking place after dusk, in makeshift cinemas or projected onto a giant screen attached to the side of an articulated lorry.

Experience of Saharawi students
The festival programme included over 30 films from around the world including documentaries, animations, short films and blockbusters as well as several made by refugees themselves in the newly established refugee camp film school. While some films such as the Oscar-nominated Egyptian film The Square, reflected stories of hope and struggle, others were purely intended to entertain offering the refugees a glimpse of what lies beyond their desiccated desert horizons.

“The cartoon about the boy who plays table football was so funny,” said 12-year old Liman Mohamed referring to the Argentinian 3-D comedy-animation Foosball by Oscar-winning director Juan Jose Campanella, which had filled the desert night with laughter.

The documentary Raíces y Clamor (Roots and Noise), which premiered at the festival explores the heart-wrenching experience of the Saharawi students who move to Spain to get an education. Fati Khadad, a 27-year-old Masters student who appears in the film was at the festival and explained how she was “adopted” by a Spanish family aged 10.

“I am slowly coming to terms with life in exile” she tells me. “Some people say I am lucky to have escaped the refugee camp and got an education but the reality is that I have spent my life apart from the people I love. We all suffer whether in the camps, whether in the occupied territories or whether in exile.”

The festival’s first prize – an actual white camel – was awarded to Legna, an evocative documentary about the traditions of Saharawi poetry. Second prize went to Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, screened as part of this years’ festival tribute to Nelson Mandela. The third prize for the documentary Dirty Wars was collected by the film’s scriptwriter, David Riker who also led a screenwriting workshop for refugee filmmakers.

“I have taught similar workshops for many years in many parts of the world, but I have never had such an exceptional group of students,” Riker said. “I think the reason is simply this – that the Saharawis have an overwhelming need to tell their stories.”

Cultural activities
As well as films and workshops the festival also offered cultural activities, children’s activities led by a team of clowns and evening concerts by renowned world music star Mariem Hassan and legendary musician Jonas Mosa Gwangwa who flew in from South Africa with his nine-piece band.

Gwangwa, who wrote the Oscar-nominated score for Richard David Attenbough’s Cry Freedom, was just one of large South African delegation invited as part of the festival’s tribute to Nelson Mandela. “Culture can replace the gun. It can be much more powerful,” Gwanga told an audience at a roundtable discussion which also included 88-year-old iconic anti-apartheid fighter Andrew Mlangeni, imprisoned with Nelson Mandela for 26 years. Together with Gwangwa, Mlangeni drew parallels with the Saharawi struggle for self-determination and South Africa’s own liberation struggle and highlighted the importance of culture as a weapon in freedom struggle.

“The South African experience is very inspiring and holds many lessons for the Saharawi,” said Jadiya Hamdi, the Saharawi government in exile’s minister of culture. “Creating our own film culture is important in the nation-building process because culture can carry an audience far beyond any political speech.

“The atmosphere in the camp during the week of the film festival is fantastic,” 70-year-old Abaya Ambarak Asalak says despite not having seen any films herself. “Why should I sit on the sand at watch a film when my life has been like a film?” she asks. Abaya has lived in the refugee camp since 1976 after fleeing Western Sahara ahead of the advancing Moroccan troops. “One night a plane dropped bombs from the sky,” she says describing a napalm attack that killed her young son and daughter. “The scars on my body may have faded but the wounds in my heart are still raw.”

And it is stories like these that David Riker feels need to be told. “Film can serve the Saharawi struggle both in helping to express a collective reflection on their circumstances, and by bring their unique story to the world” he says. “Unlike most things planted in the desert, the FiSahara film festival has taken root and continues to grow and flourish” actor said Javier Bardem ahead of this year’s festival. “It is increasingly attracting great films and great film-makers from around the world and in doing it sends a signal to our political leaders that this crisis that can no-longer be ignored and a signal to the Saharawi refugees that despite their isolation, they have not been forgotten.

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and the international co-ordinator of FiSahara. This post was first published on the Mail & Guardian Online. 

Dear President Zuma

An open letter to South African President Jacob Zuma from a young citizen.

Jacob Zuma (Pic: Gallo)

Dear Mr President

I hope you are well today and thank you for taking the time to read my letter (just practising). I can only imagine how busy you are. It’s the big day, election day. I have been waiting for this day for so long. You see, I love politics and I cannot express enough in words or actions how honoured I feel to cast my vote. It is my second time voting, but it feels like my first.

As a country, we need to just breathe and be grateful. Twenty years of democracy is an achievement, don’t you think? Yes, we have a long way to go but let’s think about what we have now that we didn’t have 20 years ago. I know some people give you a hard time and say that nothing has changed, but I want to believe that deep down in their hearts they are telling a different story.

But Mr President, I write this letter with a broken heart and a deep frustration. I look around and see young people graduating, but the minute they get off that stage they become a statistic that contributes to the unemployment figure in this country. Luckily South Africa’s unemployment rate eased to 24.1% in the fourth quarter of last year from a revised 24.5% in the third. According to Stats SA, the number of jobs had increased by 141 000 in the quarter, largely because of an increase of 123 000 jobs in the informal sector and 64 000 jobs in the formal sector. Quite an achievement, Mr President. But I must say things feel like they are becoming unbearable.

The cost of living has become too high. I recently discovered that there are people out there who earn a salary of R2 500. I am not referring to internships here, I am talking about people who have worked for years in a particular company. I was once that person but I had the advantage of living at home, therefore I did struggle much to survive.

The second thing that breaks my heart is the allegation of you spending more than R200-million on your private property. Really? R200-million, Mr President? No disrespect towards you or your family, but if this is true, did you really need that much to build and upgrade your own property? Whatever your reasons were, in the process of planning did you think about those who don’t live life but are forced to survive because of extenuating circumstances? I don’t want to believe that you upgraded Nkandla without considering the service delivery that still needs to be attended to more than ever. RDP houses still have to be built and the education system is shocking, from textbooks to children still being taught under trees. Yes, things have changed, but there is still more to be done.

This country is angry, Sir. Young people have a growing anger in them and I fear for the future. I feel as though one day our people will release their anger and it won’t be pleasant. The Egyptian people in 2012 came together, walked down the streets and voiced their concerns. Violence erupted and suddenly it was the people who were fighting back. They overthrew the government, living by the rule that says the people shall govern. I don’t want that to happen to us, I don’t want my people to resort to violence to be taken seriously by those we thought could rule this country better. If that happens, innocent people will be hurt and we won’t be moving forward as a country.

Mr President, you talk a lot but let’s try something new for a change. Listen to your people, we did put you in the position that you are in. We listened to you when you were campaigning for our votes and you became the president of South Africa. Take a minute of every day of your life and listen to the cries of the people. We don’t feel politically cheated by your actions, but I for one feel socially and emotionally cheated. I trusted you but I feel as though you have broken my trust. People are painting you as a selfish leader and no matter how hard I try to defend you and convince myself that’s not true, my heart breaks.

I hope these allegations about you are wrong because if they are true, I fear voting for the ANC because you will win and be the president again. Will you spend R200-million for your personal use again? Can you promise me that? I don’t want to vote for another political party other than the ANC but I fear, I fear that you will remain as the president and you will continue not to listen to my people.

My only plea to you is that if the ANC wins the election, please step down and give someone else the opportunity to rule this country. You have done well, Mr President, but I feel your time is up.

Kind regards,

Sindiswa Nene

This article is published in partnership with – a non-partisan, youth-led organisation that innovates engagement and ignites action on democratic, social and economic issues in South Africa with the aim of advancing the implementation of solutions to those issues.

Remember Lesotho?

The Forgotten Kingdom is the first feature film in history to have been made in Lesotho. This is noteworthy and interesting, but it is also, in some sense, a pity. It means there is a danger that it will become the “Lesotho movie”; its reputation reduced to little more than the location where it was filmed. Yet this is a film that can easily stand on its artistic merits, which are quite considerable.

The Forgotten Kingdom tells the story of Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe), a Basotho man who has spent most of his life in South Africa. At the start of the movie he has fully acclimatised to city life in Johannesburg, but he’s shiftless and unemployed. He’s also kind of a jerk. (At one point, in a clear example of movie code for villainy, he gives a cigarette to a school-age child.)

The Forgotten Kingdom (Trailer) from Black Kettle Films on Vimeo.

Read Laurence Caromba’s full review here.

Hunted in Uganda: Save us from this ‘sexuality genocide’

This is an SOS to the whole world: Help the LGBTI community survive this “sexuality genocide” in Uganda, writes a transgender woman from Kampala.

The situation in Uganda is horrible, with people getting harassed, detained and forcefully evicted.

The morning after President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay Bill, we woke to the news of a gay friend of ours that had been lynched by a mob. His partner was badly beaten up and is now in hospital in critical condition.

I am not surprised by this. Signing the Bill at a fully televised function and the comments he made during the event, Museveni made it clear that LGBTI people are considered an anomaly, suggesting that violence against them would not be frowned upon. More than ever, LGBTIs are a target. Over the past two days, the Red Pepper, a popular local tabloid, has taken to publishing the names and photos of LGBTI people, including their places of work and residence.

The tabloid 'Red Pepper' plays a lead role in the witch hunt for LGBTI Ugandans. (Pic: AFP)
The tabloid ‘Red Pepper’ plays a lead role in the witch hunt for LGBTI Ugandans. (Pic: AFP)

Two hundred people have been forcefully outed so far, making us easy targets for blood hungry homophobes. We have heard cases of people fleeing to Kenya. Some in a refugee camp at Kakuma in Kenya have suffered even more, since all refugees fleeing Uganda are apparently considered to be LGBTI. We have heard a case of a trans man’s travel documents being taken away at an airport.

The situation is dire. The cutting of aid from overseas has only served to exacerbate issues as now every ordinary Ugandan will blame LGBTI for their economic plight, further validating their prejudices of western imperialistic imposition on African states.

The whole debate has been misconstrued and our health and identities moralised and politicised. With emotions running high, it is hard to even hold any conversation around LGBTI issues in Uganda right now.

Constitutional challenge
All that remains is the constitutional challenge to the Act in Parliament but it will take ages for a positive ruling to materialise – if ever.

In the meantime, the safety and security of LGBTI people is of the utmost importance and we need countries to loosen their asylum regulations and grant the exposed LGBTI people an emergency exit as the fight continues.

That is the message we need to get out there as no foreign mission has come out clearly on this. They fought alongside us against the legislation and it would be unfortunate for them to abandon our members now.

There are several warning signs of a sexuality genocide brewing, incited by the government, including the president, the media and religious leaders.

This is an SOS to the whole world. My boyfriend and I have been under self-imposed house arrest since the passing of the Bill. My mum comes over at night to bring food.

We need to get out to safety, but not just me. It needs to be a collective mass action. If there is any help you can offer – the need is so urgent! Everyone, please get the word out there.